Where the Buffalo Roam
Yellowstone and Grand Teton provide world-class opportunities to see wildlife, and many visitors consider the chance to see bison, elk, wolves, bears, moose, and other large mammals the highlight of their trips.
Early morning and early evening usually provide the best wildlife-viewing opportunities in the summer. At other times of the year the animals tend to be equally visible in the middle of the day.
Bring a pair of binoculars and telephoto lenses for a close-up view, but make sure your behavior isn’t disturbing the animal or causing it to move away. Check with Yellowstone and Grand Teton visitor centers for details on recent wildlife sightings and handouts showing where you’re most likely to find them. Below are a few of the best spots.
Yellowstone National Park
In the remote northeast corner of Yellowstone, Lamar Valley is a great place to look for wildlife of all types, from the ubiquitous ground squirrels to an occasional grizzly. Elk, pronghorn antelope, and large herds of bison are commonly seen, and coyotes are often sighted, but the main attraction is wolves. Several wolf packs occupy this area, and wolf aficionados hang out on nearby slopes for a glimpse of them. You can rent a spotting scope in Silver Gate, just outside the park’s northeast boundary.
Despite the crowds of people at this popular corner of the park, Mammoth is also a good place to find wild animals. Elk are almost always somewhere in the area, particularly in the fall, when the males’ bugling keeps hotel guests awake at night. Pronghorn antelope are fairly common, particularly along the one-way Old Gardiner Road, and bighorn sheep are often seen on steep hillsides between Mammoth and Gardiner. Look for moose in the Willow Park area 10 miles south of Mammoth, especially in the fall.
This lovely open valley south of Canyon is a mix of grasses and sage, with occasional lodgepole pines. It’s a great place to see grazing bison and elk, plus the occasional grizzly, especially on the east side of the valley. Waterfowl, including Canada geese, trumpeter swans, pelicans, and many kinds of ducks, are plentiful in marshes and along the Yellowstone River. Stop at LeHardys Rapids in June and July to see spawning cutthroat trout.
Elk and bison are almost always visible near Old Faithful and in other parts of the Upper Geyser Basin, and the slow-moving bison often create traffic jams when they decide to use the main roads as trails. In the winter this is a great place to watch bison plowing snow with their massive heads to get at the vegetation beneath. Both elk and bison spend considerable time along the Firehole River and in the hot springs areas to stay warm when temperatures plummet.
Grand Teton National Park
Near Moran Junction, this slow-moving loop off the Snake River is a great place to watch for swimming beavers, muskrats, and river otters, or for moose browsing on willows along the shore. Also keep your eyes open for birds—bald eagles, white pelicans, ospreys, and others. The best times to see animals are in the early morning and at dusk. Rent a canoe from Dornan’s in Moose to paddle around Oxbow Bend. Another excellent place to scan for moose and elk is Willow Flats, a marshy area just up from Jackson Lake Dam.
This part of the park is best known for the photo-friendly barns backdropped by the Tetons, but you will often find a herd of bison in the open country nearby. The back roads connecting Mormon Row with Kelly are excellent places to find pronghorn antelope.
Teton Park Road
This scenic road follows a beautiful sagebrush-covered plateau with stands of lodgepole pines and aspens. Pronghorn antelope and Uinta ground squirrels are here, along with elk (especially in the fall) and some bison. Southwest of the visitor center is the narrow and winding Moose-Wilson Road (not for RVs), where you may encounter moose, mule deer, or an occasional black bear.
In the summer this is a good place to see trumpeter swans, particularly near the Jackson Hole Visitor Center. You may see elk and other animals in the summer here, but winter is the main attraction, with horse-drawn sleighs carrying visitors among thousands of elk on the feeding grounds.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton, 5th Edition